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The Park Bench


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The Park Bench back

Chaboute

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14.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

Do you often sit on park benches?

Maybe you just pass them by?

Perhaps you're out jogging and use one to limber up on; rest your hand on its back while stretching. There's a guy on a skateboard who regularly whizzes by, flipping over the length of its seat to land gracefully on the other side.

Another bloke with a briefcase strides first right every morning on his way to work, then later left, a little limp and exhausted. He's been doing that for years: day in, day out, he clocks in, trudges out.

It's part of a dog's daily routine too. Usually it only pauses to mark its territory with pungent spray, but sometimes the rain has set in - torrential rain, at times - and it cowers for cover underneath.

But if you do sometimes sit on park benches, to catch your breath, have a snack or simply gaze at the scenery beyond, do you ever wonder who else was once perched there? Who was its last occupant, and what did they do? Who'll be its next, and whatever will they be thinking?

Over ten seasons and 325 silent but exceptionally communicative black and white pages, Chabouté charts the course of two dozen or so lives whose route regularly takes them via the park bench. A lot can happen in two and a half years. You could find yourself pregnant - twice! People can change, even the most staid or conformist, or have change thrust upon them

Others will leave their mark. Right at the beginning a girl watches a boy carve a message for posterity: "I (HEART) U". I wish he'd watch where his thumb was. It's going to survive the groundsman's next lick of paint, but this graffiti won't:

"THE WORLD'S STUPIDITY IS INFINITE."

Which is fair enough.

A young man plonks himself down so that his t-shirt's slogan artlessly replaces two of the words behind him, while the paper bag in his hand covers a couple letters:

"THE PARTY IS FINITE."

This is equally sobering. Something similar occurs with a newspaper headline.

We are shown the bench from many angles, from many heights, but we never quite see what its visitors see - presumable relatively open civic parkland - just a glimpse of a tree-line beyond. In quick succession two similar women open two very different letters. What they see will change their lives substantially. Their expressions are so very subtle yet telling, but we'll only discover the specifics later on.

Interactions between different parties whose paths you thought would never cross spark surprising results, while older relationships will evolve in astonishing ways. The park warden is bloody-minded, officious - and oh so proud of his cap! - belligerently moving on and issuing written warnings to a quiet old man with a long grey beard and two rucksacks. Sometimes the Methuselah manages to catch a kip, spread out at night, unmolested, but mostly it's one long history of harassment. Where that one goes, eventually, left me in howls of laughter - so well thought out - but I loved how, on first arrival, the itinerant fetches a bottle of wine from one backpack and takes time to inspect its back label. We all deserve dignity and some of us inherently possess it.

Also very funny are the gags involving a child's balloon evidently pumped with the most powerful helium on the planet, and a sequence in which an old man's distraction, lost in private reverie, gives much more to ponder about the fattening effects of fast food.

However, I am an old softie so couples in love melt my heart, and my favourite, semi-regular park pilgrims are an old couple who have quite obviously doted on each other from day one, their mutual adoration undiminished. Once they are seated (to the left of the carved dedication), the woman looks up into his eyes, over her glasses, with the most tender gaze that I have ever beheld, as her Master of Ceremonies opens the small cardboard box on his lap, takes out his penknife and cuts their shared cream cake in two.

The scene is played out for quite some time as the sun in front of them slides down and they are seen from behind, cast in silhouette. Eventually the gentleman helps her up, and off they slowly stroll, still in silhouette. But they'll be back. They'll buy a different cake next time, and the next.

Under such a commanding conductor, this graphic novel would have brought enough joy had the lives all stayed separate. But they don't, nor do they stay still: the orchestration is interwoven and has a direction with an emphatic end - and then an epilogue. Some stories continue even when you suspect they won't.

The winter sun is out, so I'm going to take a break now, and pop down to the River Trent. It's just a five minute amble from where I live, half of that in the countryside. There's a park bench at the end of the path. I wonder who will be sitting there.

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